The Guilt Trip

Remorse and redemption: The different types of guilt, how to deal if you're particularly guilt-prone, and how to move on when you've done something wrong.

Coping with Guilt After Your Baby Dies

A normal part of grief, feeling guilty doesn't mean you are actually guilty.

When a baby dies, most grieving parents struggle with feelings of guilt. If you are a bereaved parent, you likely know this emotion well. At times, guilt can feel like a flood that threatens to sweep you under.

Particularly if your baby died during pregnancy or shortly after birth, as a mother you may wonder how you could be so helpless to prevent your baby’s death, even as you carried your little one in your womb. If the cause of death cannot be definitively determined, you may fill in the blank with your imagination and hold yourself accountable. And even knowing rationally that you were not responsible for your baby’s fatal condition, it is normal to feel as though you somehow contributed to it. You may wonder how you might’ve behaved differently to somehow prevent this tragedy. You may entertain the possibility that the most inconsequential acts might have led to your baby’s demise.

Guilt arises from the normal sense of responsibility parents feel for their children, and the belief that we have control over what happens to us and our loved ones. It is a result of the expectation that if you do all the right things, you’ll bear healthy babies and your children will live long lives. It comes from the idea that your job is to protect your baby from harm, and if you don’t, you are effectively an agent of harm. Some parents suspect this is payback for youthful indiscretions or “bad karma.”
Others harbor superstitions. One dad wondered if he had wished too hard for a son, and while this wish was granted, it came with a cruel twist. However you come to your conclusions, feeling personally responsible for your baby’s death is a terrible burden to bear.

In reality, none of us have complete control over our reproductive anatomy, childbearing fortunes, or our children’s destinies. If you’re struggling with guilt, try considering the following:

  • Guilt is a normal part of grief.
  • Guilt is a natural result of being a responsible, devoted parent.
  • You need not believe every self-accusation that goes through your head.
  • What happened was beyond your control and never your intention.
  • You are not powerful enough to influence your baby’s fate with thoughts or feelings.
  • You are not powerful enough to invite death with minor, inconsequential actions.
  • You are not powerful enough to thwart death.
  • Your feelings of responsibility will fade as you move through your grief and adjust to your baby’s death.
  • Feeling guilty is not the same as being guilt.

Still, some parents can point to their actions and wonder. If your infant’s prognosis was poor or uncertain, you may have made life-and-death decisions and feel especially responsible for the outcome. If you faced agonizing decisions, it may help you to remember that you were in the impossible position of having to choose between terrible and horrible. Whatever your decisions, they were right for your particular circumstances and the information at hand. Most importantly, they were right for your baby, and arose out of your love for your little one and the desire to ease suffering.

Guilt can also accompany any regrets you may have about the time you spent with your little one after birth. Many parents wish they had been able to spend more time or done certain nurturing acts, but of course, when you’re in the midst of crisis and trauma, it’s so hard to know what will be meaningful to look back on. In fact, you did the best you could at the time, in that situation, in your emotional and physical condition, and with the amount of information and support available to you. Forgive yourself for not knowing then what you know now.

Guilt is also a way to hold onto the illusion that you have control over the uncontrollable. It’s a way to try to make sense of the senseless. Guilt can feel far preferable to the realization that we have very little control, and the resulting feelings of worry and vulnerability. But in time, the torrent of grief and guilt gives way to smoother waters. You will regain confidence in your ability to control what you can, and be able to cope with the uncertainties that life presents. You can adopt a wondering attitude and ultimately trust that whatever happens, it’s for your higher good. And in time, you’ll look back and realize that having survived this, you can survive anything.

The Guilt Trip